Real Steel (2011)

Posted on December 4, 2013


There’s a lot to talk about with this movie, so let’s dive right in.


Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a relic. He is one of the last flesh-and-blood boxers still involved in a sport now entirely given over to robots. Charlie is so deep in a hole that down looks like up. Even his friends won’t lend him money, or parts, after his last robot gets destroyed in the ring. Charlie’s ex-girlfriend dies, and he winds up with custody of their son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie finds himself working with Max to build a new robot, but the road to redemption isn’t an easy one.

Short Version

A movie full of classic sports movie tropes, and heart.

Long Version

Okay, admit it: If you were even vaguely aware of this movie, you though it was a franchise based on this Mattel toy:

It’s not.

My blog often focuses on story structure, looking at the three-act format, the rollercoaster plot structure, and the need for character, context, and conflict.

Today I am going to focus on a particular type of character and what you need to make that character work.

Charlie is a Loser. He’s short-tempered, short-sighted, and he clearly earned his “bad luck.” All of that, plus his indebtedness are established in the opening scenes of Real Steel. So why do we keep watching him?

Well, okay, he’s played by Hugh Jackman, and Jackman is good at his job.

But, in addition to that, director Shawn Levy and writers Dan Gilroy (story and screenplay), Jeremy Leven (story) and Richard Matheson (original short story) do something smart. They show us that Charlie has friends like Finn (the charming Anthony Mackie, who will be in Captain America 2). Finn may think Charlie is a bad risk, but he still likes Charlie.

Even Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) doesn’t want to help or work with Charlie, because he gave up on being what she believes he can be.

Then there’s Max. The fact that someone loved Charlie enough to have a kid with him says a lot about his character. Sure, we can all be cynical and imagine that his late girlfriend only got pregnant to obligate Charlie to stick around. However, in the syntax and grammar of storytelling, we’re clearly supposed to see Charlie as being capable of more than he is.

What’s then rewarding for us as an audience is how Charlie at first resists all calls to change. Max plays a key role here, too. Max is clearly smarter about robots and technology than his father, much like kids in our world are smarter about the Internet and the latest social media than middle-aged guys like me. Charlie refuses to listen to Max, until Max proves his point. Even then, Charlie has reservations.

Change, in real life, is hard. This movie makes change hard for Charlie. Even after he comes on board completely, rising to meet challenges instead of taking the easy way out, his past still catches up with him.

There, then, is the ideal way to make a movie where your main character is an unlikeable loser. First, give him friends who remember a time when your loser was a better person – nicer, more successful, more sober, whatever. These friends have to be people who charm us, the audience.

Then give the loser a reason to change. In Charlie’s case, he doesn’t want full-time custody of Max, but neither does he want Max’s aunt to completely cut him off from contact with his son. That gives him a drive to succeed.

Don’t make it easy for the loser to change. That’s just insulting to every member of your audience who has tried to quit smoking or lose weight. Real-life change is hard, and we all know it. So make it realistically hard for your loser. That way, we can cheer when the loser eventually wins.


Real Steel is a PG-13 movie, for violence and some brief use of foul language. Consider that before planning a family movie night around it, but do sit down and watch it.

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Posted in: Movies